My teaching focuses on fostering transferable skills that improve students’ practical deliberations. My objectives are for students to develop the skills to (1) identify, evaluate, and advance arguments, and (2) discern and address complex philosophical or ethical problems that arise in various settings.

Because I emphasize skills, I design my courses by thinking first and foremost about what students will do in and out of class to cultivate them. I use formative assessments that involve employing argumentation and problem-solving skills throughout the term. Among these are short reading responses that ask students to do four things: reconstruct an author’s argument, critically evaluate it, explain what their evaluation accomplishes with respect to the argument, and consider how the author might respond. We perform these types of tasks together when covering material in class. In addition to their substance, we examine the general features of arguments by, for instance, identifying the kinds of claims contained in the premises (e.g., normative, empirical) and discussing what it would take to refute or support them. I also use an in-class exercise in which students finish the following sentences: (1) They (the authors) say [...], (2) I say [...], (3) One might object [...], (4) I would reply [...].[1] By regularly writing and discussing these ‘four sentence papers,’ students practice engaging with arguments in a low-stakes setting. These activities build toward higher stakes essay assignments. I facilitate improvement by providing forward-looking feedback on a regular basis.

An unconventional strategy I’ve employed in service of these objectives uses an immersive Reacting to the Past role-playing game in which students work together to design a new constitution during the French Revolution. Playing involves continuously practicing argumentative skills by engaging in debates and interpersonal negotiations. The process involves considering competing interests, values, and ethical commitments alongside empirical facts and feasibility constraints.[2] While some of these considerations are stipulated by the game, others draw on philosophical texts (e.g., Rousseau’s Social Contract). Because Reacting games occur at pivotal historical moments, they challenge students to confront views that are now widely rejected and they emphasize the practical significance of philosophical ideas (e.g., human rights, equality).

More commonly, I facilitate problem-based learning by assigning case studies. For example, in my upper-division ethics course, students worked in small groups to identify either a policy that limits individual expression or a case of protected expression that imposes serious costs (e.g., flag burning, dress codes, hate speech). They presented their case and conducted a discussion about whether our reasons for valuing free expression could justify the restriction or protection in question in light of other relevant considerations. Essentially, the assignment asks students to ‘teach’ the case to the class. Rather than simply reporting their own reactions, they must raise pertinent issues and engage with their peers’ responses by, for example, playing devil’s advocate.

These assignments ask students to do more than evaluate arguments as they do in their reading responses and subsequent essays. They support my second objective by requiring students to use tools from class to explore the complexity of real-world problems and assess factors relevant to addressing them. Whether they are occupying a role in a game or conducting a well-rounded discussion, students must consider the reasons underlying various positions and, in some cases, represent a view with which they disagree. This encourages them to move away from simplistic responses based on initial impressions of an issue toward considered judgments that reflect nuance.

Emphasizing transferable skills that are useful for solving the sort of complex problems that we encounter throughout our lives shows students that, contrary to popular belief, philosophy is an eminently practical discipline. It also demonstrates the value of a liberal arts education more generally.

[1] Earl, D. (2014) “The Four Sentence Paper.” Teaching Philosophy 38:1. Gaff, G. & Birkenstein, C. (2014) They Say, I Say. Norton.

[2] See Carnes, M. (2018) Minds on Fire: How Role Immersion Games Transform College. Harvard University Press; Joyce, K.E., Lamey, A., Martin, N. (2018) “Teaching Philosophy through a Role-Immersion Game” Teaching Philosophy 41 (2): 175-98.